I wrote here about planning my next book, which is going to be set in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. For the sake of the plot I’m not setting it in one identifiable place, but instead I’m picking buildings, shops, and settings from several of my favourite villages to create somewhere that plenty of things can happen to my fictional family.
Here is St. Endec’s church, where the grandfather of two of my main characters is a member of the band of bellringers.
It’s actually a photograph of St Giles, Maisemore, taken from the lime avenue which I think was planted as part of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 (I’m sure somebody will put me right on that if I’ve mis-remembered!). This lane makes a sweet-smelling stroll during the summer. With Maisemore apiaries only half a mile away as the bee flies, the place is buzzing during June and July!
Here’s the local pub my characters use…
Although this picture is of the Red Lion in Avebury, the pub in my book is called the Bear and Ragged Staff (or “The Bear “for short). When I was young and single, the Red Lion was about half-way between where I lived, and the home of the man I thought was my Mr Right. When I discovered how Wrong he was, I dropped him like a red-hot bar meal and have never been back. That’s a shame, because it used to be a great place for an assignation!
Here’s the village duck-pond, which is actually part of the mill in Lower Slaughter…
The Cotswolds was only an hour’s drive from where I was born in Somerset, but the countryside and cottages are completely different in character. As I child I thought the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter must have been the site of terrible battles but the truth was much closer to my soggy Somerset home than I realised. The Slaughters are named after the old English words “slough” or “slothre”, which means muddy.
My heroine’s sister lives in one of these cottages in Arlington Row, Bibury…
Like many beautiful Cotswold settings, these cottages have appeared on all sorts of chocolate boxes, calendars, and postcards. That complicated roof-line and all those hundreds of little roof tiles give this row another claim to fame. If you have a British passport, it’s one of the (hopefully) impossible-to-forge watermarks inside.
I’ve squirrelled away all these photographs in the images file of my in the Scrivener database I talked about here, but I’m still looking for things to include in my identikit Cotswold setting. Can you help me pack my fictional village with all the right things?
When you think about the countryside, what says “England” to you?
…like I know yuzu, you’d know why its fruit is so expensive to buy!
I love reading, cooking, and gardening. To read about an exotic ingredient, and then manage to grow it makes me super happy.
My sister must be Nigel Slater’s greatest fan. A few years ago, Sis gave me his book The Christmas Chronicles. It’s an amazing combination of anecdotes and recipes both esoteric and more down to earth. I’ve been growing citrus fruit for quite a while and have cracked the best method for growing basil, so when I read the details of Slater’s Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice I was quick to try it out.
The recipe mixes basil-infused milk and cream with sugar syrup, and the juice of mixed citrus fruit to emulate Nigel Slater’s favourite citrus fruit, the yuzu.
I’d never heard of yuzu before reading The Christmas Chronicles. The Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice recipe was easy and good, although I couldn’t help wondering how much better it would have been if I’d used fresh yuzu juice.
As Nigel Slater says in his book, the fruit is hard to find. I tracked some down in a big, upmarket supermarket but, in common with a lot of imported fruit the yuzu they had on sale had been picked too early. They were hard, and the skin was completely free of that enticing spicy fragrance I’d been told to expect. Not only that, but it was many times more expensive than organic citrus fruit. I wasn’t going to make do with something second-rate, so I left the wrinkly relics where they were and decided to grow my own.
My favourite online nursery is The Citrus Centre. They had yuzu plants for sale, but at a price that made me think more than twice. I don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol, and haven’t been away on holiday for years (because I don’t want to leave the animals in the care of anyone else) and lots of people spend small fortunes on all those things and end up with not much to show for it. If I had a yuzu tree, my reasoning went, I’d have the challenge of growing it, a greenhouse-full of orange blossom fragrance in spring, and the pleasure (I hoped) of using the resulting fruit in autumn and winter.
I took the plunge, but when the yuzu arrived I saw straight away why the fruit is so expensive. The bushes ought to come with a health warning! They are covered in very sharp spines, each one is five or six centimetres long. It’s like keeping an ever-expanding bundle of barbed wire in the greenhouse.
The workers who pick these fruit for the supermarkets deserve danger money!
The yuzu is a typical citrus, with green, glossy leaves and waxy white flowers which are rich with a sweet, heavy perfume. In 2019, my yuzu fruited for the first time. The juice is like a tangy cross between a mandarin and a lemon, and the grated zest is a great addition to cakes.
Over the winter of 2020/2021 it lost every one of its leaves all at once, during a cold, snowy spell. One day it looked fine, but the next morning it was a network of bare branches and wicked thorns, surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves. It was such a sudden shedding I assumed the tree must be dead.
Nothing happened for three or four months, then at the beginning of this week I saw the first signs of life. A few tiny tufts of green at the tip of each branch. The next day saw a record-breaking high temperature for early April, with lots of sunshine. The yuzu took advantage of it. Within thirty six hours of seeing those first shoots, the plant looked like this—complete with flower buds!
Orange blossom was a traditional flower for brides’ bouquets. The new book I’m planning at the moment will feature both weddings, orange blossom, and greenhouses, so every morning when I walk into my big Dutch light glasshouse, I’m breathing in research!
The picture of a mandarin—one of the yuzu’s parents—in the heading is by Beverly Buckley via Pixabay, by the way.
What’s the most exotic thing you’ve grown, or used in cooking?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but until I sold my first book I earned money by writing non-fiction articles and producing photographs for magazines such as The Lady and The Garden. Among other things, I wrote monthly gardening tips, and pieces on how to keep poultry and pigs.
Once I began to get articles commissioned on a regular basis, I could afford to go back to writing fiction. At first I wrote short stories, as they fitted in well with my non-fiction writing schedule.
I love listening to the radio, so trying to produce some radio drama was an obvious move. During my first year as a full-time writer I was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Competition with an historical drama, but found writing stories and novels much easier than producing a script!
How I came to be published in book form for the first time is a saga in itself. One morning on Woman’s Hour, a writer was interviewed about her new historical novel. It sounded like a great read, but in those days OH and I were poverty-stricken newly-weds. Unable to justify buying a hardback book, I ordered it from the local library.
I can still remember how indignant I felt when I read the opening sentence, which went something like this…
The beautiful heroine looked down from her vantage point on the top of Toghill at workmen busily building Bath’s Royal Crescent….
That was written by someone looking at a map, not a view. I was born only a few miles from Toghill. For anyone to see Bath, let alone pick out workmen on the Royal Crescent, they would need to be about twenty metres tall and blessed with the eyesight of a hawk! There is a great view from the top of Toghill, but it is in the direction of Bristol, not Bath. On a clear day, you can see the Severn estuary. The city of Bath is not far behind you, it’s true, but because of the lie of the land the city is invisible until you travel several kilometres south east from the top of Toghill.
I decided then and there it would be a poor show if I couldn’t write something a bit better than that. Taking the script I’d written for the BBC, I reworked it into an historical novel. This was in the days before the internet, so all my research had to be done during trips to Gloucester library.
During my many visits, I used the library’s copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find a possible publisher for my book. That was disappointing. Only one of the publishers would accept work direct from writers. All the others dealt only with agents.
The single publisher that would accept unagented manuscripts was Harlequin, under their Masquerade imprint. Just before Christmas one year I sent off the first three chapters and a synopsis, as requested in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In January I got a lovely letter asking me for the rest of the story. I sent it off straight away, together with return postage (as Snail Mail was the only way in those days).
I didn’t sit back to wait. I kept busy, creating and submitting more articles and photographs on gardening, which is how I fill my time when I’m not writing. At the beginning of May I opened the letter every writer dreams of getting—Knight’s Pawn had been accepted for publication!
The first thing I did was to check out the most impressive-sounding literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I wrote to them, saying I’d landed a contract to write historical novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I got a reply from one of the biggest agents in the country almost by return, inviting me up to a meeting at their headquarters in London.
I was shown into a plush office where I was given tea and cake by a lovely guy who said it was his first week in the job. He sweet-talked me into agreeing to become his client, and said he’d get a contract couriered to me as soon as it had been drawn up.
I was so excited, I spent the journey home from London working on the first draft of another book. A week passed, then ten days, but no contract arrived. I was climbing the walls with excitement until the awful day two weeks after my trip when a slim white envelope arrived.
It was an apology dictated by the head of the firm. It was their policy not to take on clients who wrote historical fiction for Mills and Boon, the letter said. The Harlequin contracts were pretty much “boilerplate”— that is, there was little if any room for an agent to negotiate different terms. The man who interviewed me hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances, the letter said, and so with regret they didn’t feel able to offer me a contract after all.
It was tough, discovering I was that new agent’s first big mistake, but this cautionary tale just goes to show that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
That was years ago and I never did find an agent, but it doesn’t seem to have done my career much harm. I may have missed some opportunities and I’d love someone to take control of my writing calendar, but I’ve always had plenty of work, and I get to keep 100% of my pre-tax profits. If I had an agent, I’d lose 15% of it, in their commission!
What’s been the biggest excitement in your writing life?
This week, I’m using one of my own short stories as a real-life example of all the steps—from motivation to publication—that have appeared in this series.
In 2018 I took my seventeen-year-old-son to a university open day and ended up signing on for a Masters course myself. There had to be a story in that experience. To answer the question Why Write? posed in Part One of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, I wanted to satisfy my creative instinct, capture my experience of going back into education as a mature student, and do it in a way that would entertain others.
Readers like to relate to characters, and giving the people in my story everyday worries would make them convincing. Part Ten of my series included the top concerns of people today, two of which are ageing, and work-related worries. That pair of posers certainly kept me awake while I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for university. I worried that I was too old, and that my poor school record (I left at sixteen) might mean I couldn’t keep up with the other students.
Projecting my fears onto a fictional character and making sure she overcame them might persuade others to become mature students, too.
In real life, it turned out that I was worrying about nothing. There were people of allages on my course. One of them had children older than me! I survived all the coursework and assessments, and emerged at the end of two years with lots more life experience, and a distinction.
My short story project was always going to be an optimistic piece, so The People’s Friend was the obvious choice when it came to finding my audience, as discussed in Part Three of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity. That magazine’s combination of upbeat fiction and articles, crafting, cooking, and beautiful illustrations has kept it popular for generations. The People’s Friend has exacting standards but provides lots of information to help potential writers— see here for details.
Parts Four and Five of my series centred on inspiration, and using your own experiences as a starting point. I decided my short story would be built around a woman wondering whether she was up for a huge challenge. Every other day, I face a struggle of my own like that. I’m built for comfort rather than speed, but I force myself to use a treadmill for the good of my health. I may not be fast, but I keep going! In contrast, one of our friends is a workaholic. His doctor is always telling him to diet, stop smoking, and take up exercise. He’s never got around to doing any of that, although he did try walking rugby…once!
Those two contrasting real-life people gave me the basis of my central fictional characters. I then needed a theme for my story. Waving my last “baby” off to university was hard, but it led directly to me having a great time there myself. That idea of turning a bittersweet experience into an advantage was something I wanted to share. It proves that life doesn’t end when your children move on. Finding something which keeps your brain active, gets you out of the house, and involves meeting other people can help fill the gap in your life.
Part Six of my series dealt with turning thoughts into a manuscript. As I was only going to be writing a short story rather than a novel, I didn’t use Scrivener for this project. I used the prose template I have on my computer, which automatically creates manuscripts in 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced, with wide margins, and numbered pages.
I typed my notes straight onto my computer, saving my work regularly both as a document and onto a thumb drive. I named my file Restart_Short_Story, as that working title plays on the heroine’s aim of restarting her life. It also suggests a change in her relationship with her husband, and gives a nod toward running, which is central to the plot. The word Restart formed the header on every page of my manuscript, keeping me focussed on those core themes.
Some of Restart was written during sourdough-making sessions. My recipe requires the dough to be worked four times, with a ten minute break between each burst of kneading. The kitchen timer would go off just when I’d got into the swing of writing a scene. That meant I couldn’t wait to get back to it (once I’d scraped the dough off my fingers). Two more important writing tips: never get flour on your keyboard—and the best time to end a writing session is when it’s going really well. That way, you’ll be raring to go next time you start work.
Gradually my story Restart took shape. I kept Part Nine‘s Four C’s of Creative Writing (Character, Contrast, Charisma, and Conflict) in mind as I worked. Quiet housewife and mother Sue is a foil for her boisterous, workaholic husband Malcolm. He can be annoying, but his charisma is balanced with charm. Sue is keen to pick up the ambition she abandoned when they had a family. I made use of contrast in my writing as well as in my characters, so there’s internal monologue as well as dialogue, and the settings vary between a car interior, and out in the fresh air.
As well as my central middle-aged couple, an elderly lady, and a teenager also appear giving contrasts in age, too. I wrote the story in the first person, from heroine Sue’s point of view as—while this story is complete fiction, and this couple definitely aren’t me and OH— her hopes and worries were based on my hopes and worries. I really did write this story from my heart!
The internal conflict which is vital to keep readers hooked is introduced right at the start of the story. Sue secretly wants to investigate the university course but she is afraid she is too old, and keeps quiet. She knows Malcolm will laugh at her dream, because he never takes anything seriously. Malcolm has an inner conflict of his own. He hides his worries about what will happen now they’re rattling around in their family home alone by covering it with humour.
Once I had those characters and their hidden concerns in place, I added some external conflict to add excitement. Sue and Malcolm witness a mugging. She chases the thief and catches him, which convinces her she’s fitter and more determined than she thought. Malcolm’s pride and confidence in Sue’s ability is obvious, and by the end of the story they have reaffirmed their love for each other. Sue decides to sign up for university, while Malcolm is going to look again at his attitude to work, and his health.
In Part Two of this series I wrote about finding people to support you in your writing ambitions. I usually use workshop sessions organised by the Marcher chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, although the first outing for this short story was a university workshop. A well-run workshop is a brilliant way to improve a piece of work. You can learn a lot by helping other writers, too.
A good workshop is one where only constructive criticism is allowed. As novelist Joanna Maitland puts it, offer three stars and a wish. That is, aim to give three pieces of praise before you make a suggestion for improvement. It’s a classic example of do-as-you-would-be-done-by!
When I had finished the workshop revisions, I went back and checked the length required byThe People’s Friend. Restart would fit nicely into one of their 2,000-word slots, so during the editing process I made sure the word count didn’t go over that figure. When I was happy with the result I saved it onto a thumb drive again, then sent a copy by email to my beta reader. I copied myself in on the email, so I had an insurance copy safe in my inbox.
Once the story was returned to me and I had made the revisions suggested by my reader, I added a front page which set out the working title Restart, my name, the word count, and had my full contact details at the bottom. I copied those, and pasted them onto the last page of my manuscript. After adding the word END and the word count below the final paragraph of my story, I sent it off to The People’s Friend.
Every publisher receives thousands of submissions every year, so waiting for them to respond can be frustrating. Keep writing while you wait. It makes the time pass much more quickly, and means you’ll have more pieces to submit.
Although I called my story and computer file Restart, I never assumed that would be the title of the published work. They are almost always changed for publication, and Restart duly became Catch Me If You Can. There are a number of reasons why publishers change titles. They may have already used that one in the past, their house style may require titles that consist of more than one word, or it has to be a certain length to suit the layout of the typeset page, for example.
That’s the story of my story, from initial ideas about Restart, right through to its submission and eventual publication as Catch Me If You Can. Like everything worth waiting for, success in creative writing takes time but every second is a pleasure, and it’s an amazing feeling to see your name in print.
I’m taking a short break from blogging about writing to get my PhD schedule sorted out. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in this blog in future, or if you’d like to read Catch Me If You Can, contact me and I’ll see what I can do.
The art of being a creative writer is to identify a need in your audience, and then fill it. If the weather’s terrible, then some readers will be crying out for escape in the form of a sun-drenched romance. If they are going through a bad patch in their lives, then a novel in which the protagonist triumphs over similar circumstances will help give them hope for the future.
Most of us read for pleasure, and to leave everyday life behind for a while. You can show your readers that an improvement in circumstances, character growth and change is possible by the way you design your story. As well as a satisfying read, you’ll also give them a subtle boost to their spirits.
While every writer should aim to satisfy reader expectation, don’t forget that writers have needs, too! Make sure you’re writing what you want to write, but tailor it to your readership. That way both sides will get what they want. You’ll enjoy the experience of writing, and your audience will experience a great read.
Identifying what your audience spends time thinking about is a good way to kick-start your imagination. In Part Nine of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, we saw that conflict is vital within a book . One of the common causes of inner conflict can be summed up in an exchange that everyone in England has several times each week—in fact, it’s often a daily occurence:
“Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” “I’m fine, too!”
Many people have turned this ritual into a verbal tic. You ask the question, and respond in approved fashion because that is what is expected. Generations of English people have been brought up to say I’m fine, because it’s easier to repeat that old lie than it is to say I’m having a terrible time out loud.
Armed with the information that everyone is worried and needs help to see they are not the only ones, you then need to decide what is likely to be the most popular way to torture your central characters.
There are several ways to discover themes relevant to readers. The most obvious is to burgle your own life and experiences. The theme of many of my books and short stories get out of a rut by setting a goal and working toward it. I’m keen to promote this idea as it’s worked so well for me in real life. I came from very humble beginnings, left school at sixteen with hardly any qualifications, then had a series of dead-end jobs until I met my husband. He believed in me, encouraged me to follow my dream as a writer, and supported me until my career took off.
If you were born into the life of the idle rich and, unlike me, you’ve led a blameless life since childhood, there are still plenty of places to research popular concerns. The problem pages of magazines and agony aunts in newspapers used to be a rich seam of inspiration, but like the rest of us these have largely migrated online.
Mumsnet and Quora are both great places to look for inspiration, but never forget two golden rules of Creative Writing: DON’T plagiarise by copying the juicy details word for word, and DON’T use the names of real people. You must also bear in mind that not everything you read online is legal, decent, honest, or truthful, to use the Advertising Standards Authority’s motto. Not everyone tells the truth online. Whether you are research for a book, a good lesson for life is whenever you read anything bear in mind the famous ABC of criminal investigation: Accept nothing, Believe nobody, and Check everything!
You can also use a general search engine. I googled “what do people worry about?” and this site helpfully lists the top twenty concerns (pre-Covid).
The worries quoted there can be broken down into seven broad groups. Six of these (getting old, money worries, health, work, emotional problems, and family strife) involve individuals worrying about things that affect them directly. Only one of the Top Twenty worries was concerned with the wider world. That was nervousness about the level of crime in the respondents’ local area, and it was right at the bottom of the list.
This is why internal conflict is such a powerful force in Creative Writing. If you ever worry about whether you’re projecting the right image to other people, relax—the chances are they are far too busy worrying about what you’re thinking about them. Use your experience of this feeling of uncertainty, which is almost universal, to bring conflicts within your characters to life.
To engage your readers you need to write about characters they can relate to, and give those characters easily recognisable problems. Deciding what to inflict on your fictional cast is part of the fun of creative writing.
Next time, I’ll be using the ten parts of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity to illustrate the path from motivation to submission, and eventual publication. Follow this blog to make sure you don’t miss it!